Woody Guthrie Centennial: This Land Is Still His Land

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The iconic songwriter's lyrics still resonate in America today, especially when time is taken to listen to the lesser known verses.

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As the world gets ready to mark the centennial of the birth of his iconic father, Arlo Guthrie isn't yet read to describe precisely what Woody Guthrie's music still means to America. "There's more left to tell," he told me last month. "In the next coming 100 years, before we celebrate the 200th birthday, our version of Woody Guthrie and his songs will undergo more and more changes. I'm pretty sure it'll be a favorable future, although there's nothing quite like having been there. For that I remain thankful and inspired."

Surely he is not alone.

Woody Guthrie, born on July 14, 1912 in the Okemah, Oklahoma, remains one of the most revered singers, songwriters and social activists in American history, a man whose gritty songs about the nation's also-rans have been translated into dozens of languages, covered by scores of other famous and talented musicians, and sung alongside a million smoky campfires between mouthfuls of coffee, whiskey or S'mores. And it all starts and ends with his masterwork:
 

Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" as a pointed response to Irving Berlin's wildly-popular and patriotic "God Bless America," although today it's hard to imagine a country without either. Arlo Guthrie, himself an accomplished and beloved folk singer, diplomatically says today that his father wasn't trying to pick a fight with Berlin but rather wanted to "express and extend the idea (of God Bless America) to folks who were down on their luck or living through hard times."

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez recorded it.

So did Johnny Cash.

It was performed at the Barack Obama's Inauguration by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, who often sings it live in concert. Springsteen, an eager heir to the Guthrie legacy, once called it "about the greatest song ever written about America." But it has become more than that. Today there is an Indian version of the song and a Belgian one, a Chinese edition and a Bahamian one, and it has been turned into both a reggae anthem and a hardcore ode. Check this out:
 


"I remember playing him the recordings that came to the house from all over the world," Arlo says. "We would play them while we were eating hot dogs. I don't think we understood what was being sung. We only knew that the melodies and the titles were familiar." Guthrie gives credit to Seeger, the indefatigable folk singer who is now himself 93 years old, for turning "This Land" into a national ballad about America's promise and peril, her vast opportunity and her relentless disappointments.

So they play it on street corners with instruments like the accordion and in studios using the Taiwanese yueqin, they sing it from Sweden to New Zealand and in Canada, where I learned it as a kid. Up there, we don't say "from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters." Instead, we say "from Bonavista to Vancouver Island... from the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters..." Here's one wonderful example of the Canadian version of the song. Check it out (or should I say: Tiens, jette un oeil):



"If my father ever imagined that any of his songs were considered anthems he never mentioned it to me," Arlo says. "Before Pete would launch into the song onstage, he would always say, 'The worst thing that can happen to a song is to make it official.'" Yet even 70 years after "This Land" came onto the American scene it contains a political message that is hard to miss (it was sung, for example, in New York's Zuccotti Park during the "Occupy" protests there last year).

But if America's nostalgia for old songs is strong, so is our self-defeating penchant for smoothing out the rough edges of our history. We all remember and sing the happy and shiny choruses of the song. But we forget the gut-wrenching other verses and their pointed lament for the common man. It is those other verses, the ones we routinely don't sing today, which are arguably the most politically relevant as the nation gears up for another gut-wrenching, divisive general election:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me; Sign was painted, it said private property; But on the back side it didn't saying nothing; This land was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me, As I go walking that freedom highway; Nobody living can ever make me turn back; This land was made for you and me

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple; By the relief office, I'd seen my people; As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me.

Studs Terkel, who knew a thing or two about the poetry of the poor and dispossessed, lauded Woody Guthrie once for the spirit he instilled in millions of Depression-era Americans. "They may have lacked for bread," Terkel wrote in the introduction to "Ramblin' Man," Ed Cray's fine 2004 Guthrie biography, "but he offered them something else; self-esteem, hope, and a laugh or two along the way."

Cray himself was more specific.

He wrote:

As long as Guthrie's lyrics can be adapted to contemporary issues, his songs will be sung. As long as there remain social inequalities against which he protested, his songs will be sung.

This special anniversary year, in Woody Guthrie's old hometown, they'll celebrate his life and music the way they have for the past 14 years - with "WoodyFest," the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. That's likely how Guthrie, who died in 1967, would have wanted it, says his son. Arlo doesn't appear to mind, either.

"The way I see it," he says:

"This Land" come to symbolize the spirit of the people who have been singing it from the last few generations. Every time someone sings a song, any song, they leave a little residue of themselves in the spirit of the song which accumulates over time... These songs and places become almost sacred in their ability to awaken feelings in people.

"Sounds crazy," Arlo Guthrie says, "but trust me, it's true."

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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